Friday, April 09, 2010
The End of Reformed Evangelical OT Scholars
As a biblical scholar of a Reformed Evangelical persuasion, I confess that I find myself scratching my head about what is happening in North American circles with respect to biblical studies, particularly the Old Testament. First, there was the Peter Enns affair at Westminster. Now truth be told I'm not sold on Enns' model of applying the incarnation to Scripture (J.I. Packer and John Webster have given reasons for rejecting that model), but Enns' attempt to situate the Old Testament in the context of ANE literature is fairly standard and uncontroversial in Christian circles outside of North America. Second, we have this week seen the resignations ( = dismissals) of two of the most eminent Evangelical Professors of biblical studies in the USA, Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman, from their adjunct posts at Reformed seminaries. Waltke resigned in order it seems to become embroiled in controversy because he asserted in a video that evangelicals should embrace evolution as being consistent with the biblical accounts of creation and Longman was fired because he stated in a video that belief in a historical Adam was not necessary. The story about Waltke even made the news at USA Today (HT Camden Busey) and Christianity Today. Then there is the very critical response made by Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia to John Walton's book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, which Poythress says "makes unsound claims" about creation. Combine this with the vituperative responses made against the writings of N.T. Wright and the chorus of rebuke at John Piper for inviting Rick Warren to speak at the Desiring God Conference, all coming from Reformed circles, and you have a clearly discernible trend. This trend is what I simply have to call a Fundamentalist Resurgence in what were once historical Evangelical Denominations and Institutions.
I suspect that this resurgence is driven by two main factors. First, fear of liberalism and fear of upsetting one's constituency. All Evangelical organizations face the temptation of drifting leftward and the laity in many churches do a good job of not tolerating speakers and teachers who dig at that "ol tim religion". Rocking the boat on controversial issues can also lead to funding problems and student numbers shrinking in seminaries. Still, the Evangelical churches have always regarded views of creation as a secondary matter, at least in the parts of the world I've lived in (UK and Australia). What is more, Waltke and Longman have impeccable credentials in having a high view of Scripture and are at the forefront of their discipline and are widely respected as scholars and churchmen. I would add that the job of Christian professors is not to tell the laity what they want to hear (whether that's on healthcare or science or Bible versions), but to assist students, pastors, and churches to have a "faith seeking understanding" and to help bridge the academy and church divide. Second, I think a bigger factor is that leaders in some Reformed institutions like to be perceived as "saviours" of orthodoxy. Luther saved us from Roman Catholicism and J.G. Machen saved us from liberalism and we want to be like them. But how can you be a "saviour" when there are no Catholics or Liberals in your midst? Well, you have to do the next best thing and find some villains that you can save the masses from. The easiest option is to find issues that are controversial and secondary and then proclaim that they are not disputed and not secondary and there is only one correct answer and all other answers are "heretical". Write blog posts, publish books, and hold conferences to convince a closed circle of followers that you and your homeboys are the guardians of the true orthodoxy. Please note that I'm being hyperbolic and cynical here (always imagine me smiling when I write things like this), but the "saviour syndrome" clearly exists in Reformed circles and it seems to be something that is unique to Reformed Evangelical Circles too. I think the response to Waltke and Longman is a mix of both one and two. Some leaders genuinely not wanting to be controversial before a conservative constituency about evolution, which in North America has always been a major issue, but also a desire by some to be perceived and celebrated as a "saviour" of the true faith.
But is there a future for Reformed Evangelical Old Testament Professors in the USA? I'm starting to think that there probably is not. Not unless they restrict themselves to writing devotional works. Or perhaps they can survive only if they are willing to allow Systematic Theologians to provide them with a script to read on all critical and background questions to the Old Testament. That would meaning bowing before Systematic and Historical Theologians and allowing them to dictate the proper relationship of Ancient Near Eastern literature to the Old Testament, to determine the limitations of Science for explaining Creation narratives, to establish the proper meaning of Semitic and oriental languages, to legislate the sources and authorship and date of all Old Testament writings, and to state the proper significance of archaeological evidence relating to biblical places and persons. But who wants to do that?
Perhaps the chief irony in all of this is that B.B. Warfield, who is revered in some circles as a virtual emmanation of the Logos, was himself a believer in Evolution (or at least held do its compatibility with the Bible). So it seems that even B.B. Warfield (peace be upon him) could not teach in many Reformed Seminaries these days! Note, I'm not saying that theistic evolution is the model of choice. Yet special creation, theistic evolution, and progressive creation are all consistent with a Christian worldview and a high view of the Scriptures. I don't want to speculate about who certain colleges and seminaries will replace folks like Longman and Waltke with, however, we can safely assume that the brilliance of Longman and Waltke will be very hard to match. You don't replace guys like these by flicking through your rollerdex. The temptation will be to hire persons who are "safe" and tow the party line. Unfortunately, that could mean hiring academics who are satisfactory teachers and prosaic researchers, but who will parrot the standard mantras when required. That might not happen, but it will be the temptation. Yet the Reformed churches deserve the best evangelical academics that we have - biblical, godly, and confessional, combined with the qualities of being a dynamic teacher and cutting edge researcher - but that cannot happen if we narrow the field by making secondary issues primary points of doctrinal agreement. We need to recapture the genuine evangelical breadth of the Reformed churches and demonstrate the intellectual coherence of the Reformed Tradition. The opposite would be to narrow the definition of who is "in" and to retreat to hyper-conservative positions on contested issues. The departure of Longman and Waltke signify a move in the wrong direction.